Delivering Development – The Missing Link?

Bob Reid, Convenor of RTPI Scotland, discusses the need to better link development and infrastructure

The development problem we face over infrastructure is the almost complete lack of any joined-up approach to the capital programmes of infrastructure providers.  Health and education should be included in this criticism. Privatisation, or quasi-privatisation, of most infrastructure providers has only served to exacerbate the problem. It is difficult to believe that providers aren’t, first and foremost, bottom line driven. Why should profit or share price be subordinate to a planner’s eye view? Customer service, pricing and income security obscure the longer term. In that light, how should we go about delivering development plans? I suggest Nelson’s telescope is not the answer.  There is a challenge we have to overcome – which involves standing up and telling it like it is.

How do we go about doing this? Not easy. I suspect that many infrastructure providers baulk at the idea of being coordinated by others or with others – especially by planners; and doubly so if for some grand public purpose and not for profit.

Perfect information has to be the answer. What we, as planners, must do is to ensure we have marshalled absolutely all the information about the state of infrastructure – not just titbits. The Full Monty of geographic information, condition and capacity surveys, committed and planned expenditures must be freely available for all infrastructures. They all have a bearing.  This means that if a Director of Education has a development programme for education provision (based on sound education provision and curriculum delivery motives) then that should steer development, not the other way round. All too often, largely because we’ve moved so far from a planned economy, development becomes the tail that wags the dog. Education is planned around the planning gain cheque. Is that really the way we should do this? Schools lie empty and are being demolished in our cities while, given the flight to the suburbs, surrounding local authorities are having to build new schools. Is this sustainable? I hasten to add that other infrastructure providers could equally have been used to illustrate.

Fundamental planning imperatives, I suggest, should be:

  • re-use of existing infrastructure
  • building capacity within existing infrastructure
  • renewing existing infrastructure

Against these imperatives decisions can more easily be justified.

Yes, we know politicians will behave like politicians but, in terms of the parameters which govern their planning decisions, those who put forward major new developments which require motorways, grade separated junctions, new reservoirs, new sewage stations, new schools and the like, should be obliged to answer for this – especially when better alternatives are being turned down which could have been be perfectly well served by existing infrastructure. All that happens in these cases is that the development becomes undeliverable. Poor compromises are reached, and ultimately the public pays the cost and carries the burden whether as consumer or taxpayer. I submit we can’t afford this luxury.

In this context it is worth recalling that the legislation through which the New Towns were built in Scotland remains on the statute books (at least last time I looked) and enables the uplift in land values to be captured to deliver decent infrastructure. Is it time we rolled out that old model in a new context? Have we lost so much confidence that we are frightened even to contemplate such a possibility? I ❤ Cumbernauld, though that is perhaps another discussion…..

This article appears in the Scottishplanner 148 (August 2012)

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